The Islamic Leadership Institute of America runs programs throughout the
year for Muslim youth, often including problem solving activities involving
robotics and other types of engineering. Photos courtesy of ILIA.
The Islamic Leadership Institute of America (ILIA) held a private meeting for its supporters this week to discuss the Institute’s goals and progress.
Since its inception in ILIA has been working to develop strong leadership in Muslim communities around the country.
However, the seeds of ILIA were planted long before its creation in 2009.
“I think this started really when I was very young, around the age of 13 [living in overseas at the time],” said Ayman Nassar, the founder and chair of the board of directors of ILIA. “My friends and I would complain about the streets not being clean...At the end of the discussion we’d say ‘what can we do, we can’t fix the world.’ I knew the world is broken and people should be doing something about it and at that young age I wasn’t sure what could be done.”
After finishing engineering school and managing technology projects for high profile companies including IBM and AT&T, Nassar started to rethink his contribution to society.
“I worked in the profession and developed some of the coolest stuff. I asked myself the question, ‘what’s so good about it if most of the world's population can’t use it,” he said.
As an educated adult, he now knew more and could do more but he looked back at his thirteen year old self for inspiration. He found that youth today struggled with the same questions as he did when he was younger. Nassar began to mentor youth and help them realize their capabilities as young leaders who could instigate change in their own lives, and in their communities.
“I started to get more involved with young people and I started to understand the issues that surround them and realizing that a lot of these issues are a result of the environment they live in,” said Nassar.
As he became more involved with youth, he subsequently became more involved in local masajids and communities.
“I realized [lack of successful framework] throughout the whole community. Our Muslim community at large has ways to go to bring [leadership] capacity into our communities,” he said.
Nassar began work on ILIA in hopes of redefining the way that leadership was approached in the Muslim community. Leadership was not a privilege of the elite, but a necessity for all.
ILIA offers leadership training programs for students, incarcerated youth, masajid and organizations and a variety of seminars and lectures on the subject as well as additional programs on family services and career mentoring.
“The portfolio of projects we offer spans a big broad spectrum not only of ages and demographics but [in situation] from gifted and talented youth to incarcerated youth,” said Nassar.
Lana Umm Ahmad, found out about ILIA from a friend when she was seeking guidance for her son.
“My son had always been a good child until his junior year in public high school. He mixed with the wrong crowd and was influenced by their typical delinquent behavior. I never believed that my son would fall into the same adolescent delinquency as his non-Muslim peers. Considering that I thought I had taught him better,” she said.
Ahmad said the resources provided to her son not only taught him important lessons in dealing with his life at that point, but also provided him the confidence and skills to continue down a more healthy path.
“Their complete service in providing guidance, self esteem, motivation, mentoring and interaction with successful role models was invaluable, mashaAllah. They put my son back on track and he has created a lasting bond and confidence that I believe will always carry him, through, inshaAllah.” said Ahmad.
ILIA also provided services for Ahmad herself so that she could develop a better relationship with her son.
With diversified programs for various relationships, communities and from different perspectives, ILIA approaches the concept of leadership in a way that Nassar claims is the most comprehensive.
“Business schools teach leadership from a textbook,” he said. “The model that’s out there even at the biggest business schools across the country is incomplete.”
While Nassar advocates the traditional leadership training, he emphasized the need for practical application as well.
“Leadership touches people. It’s not a science,” said Nassar. “In order to master it, you have to practice it.”
ILIA seeks to take students from the classroom, into the field to finish their training. Some of its programs requires young leaders to successfully manage real-world projects before they are eligible to complete their certification.
“You can’t grow leaders in a classroom. We understand that problem,” said Nassar. “The void that we are filling is growing leaders, growing leaders under a comprehensive framework of leadership.”
With masajids sprouting up around the country, Nassar has his work cut out for him.
When local D.C. area communities contact him, he first offers a review of their current leadership and then derives the appropriate plan of action.
“We have programs that are coach the leaders. We do an assessment of strength, weaknesses and things that threaten the community. We give them feedback and recommendations,” said Nassar. “What’s the impact of what they’re doing really on their community? We’ve got to peel the onion and see what’s happening.”
What he often finds is a seemingly timeless clash between the existing leadership and new potential leadership. While this division often takes the form of old versus young, “back home” versus “home grown,” Nassar said both sides need to realize not only their strengths, but their weaknesses as well.
“It’s very, very important that it’s not either or, it’s not old people or young people,” said Nassar. “Youth bring vision, courage, risk taking, but also we need a little bit of maturity from the older generation.”
It’s not always about age, said Nassar.
“I think it’s more about about the open mindness of that person in charge. We have older people in their 60s who are willing to engage with us. They ask us to come give classes and about opportunities. On the other hand you have people regardless of their age that are not open to it. They feel they don’t need anything,” he said.
ILIA offers programs in six states including Maryland and Virginia as well as D.C.
“We are here to partner with all of these groups, our schools our masjids, community centers to bring the best to the communities,” said Nassar. “We have treasures that are just sitting idle.”